A delicate effort to reach a young girl buried in the ruins of her school stretched into a new day on Thursday, a vigil broadcast across the nation as rescue workers struggled to pick away unstable debris and reach her.
The sight of her wiggling fingers early Wednesday became a symbol for the hope that drove thousands of professionals and volunteers to work frantically at dozens of wrecked buildings across the capital and nearby states looking for survivors of the magnitude 7.1 quake that killed at least 245 people in central Mexico and injured over 2,000.
Mexico’s navy announced early Thursday it had recovered the body of a school worker from the Enrique Rébsamen school, but still had not been able to rescue the trapped child.
Rescuers removed dirt and debris bucketful by bucketful and passed a scanner over the rubble of the school every hour or so to search for heat signatures that could indicate trapped survivors. Shortly before dawn the pile of debris shuddered ominously, prompting those working atop it to evacuate.
“We are just meters (yards) away from getting to the children, but we can’t access it until it is shored up,” said Vladimir Navarro, a university employee who was exhausted after working all night. “With the shaking there has been, it is very unstable and taking any decision is dangerous.”
Mexico City Mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera said the number of confirmed dead in the capital had risen from 100 to 115, bringing the overall toll from the quake to 245. He also said two women and a man had been pulled alive from a collapsed office building in the city’s center Wednesday night, almost 36 hours after the quake.
Still, frustration was growing as the rescue effort stretched into Day 3.
Outside a collapsed seven-story office building in the trendy Roma Norte neighborhood, a list of those rescued was strung between two trees. Relatives of the missing compared it against their own list of those who were in the building when the quake struck — more than two dozen names — kept in a spiral notebook.
Patricia Fernández’s 27-year-old nephew, Ivan Colin Fernández, worked as an accountant in the seven-story building, which pancaked to the ground, taking part of the building next door with it.
She said the last time the family got an update was late yesterday: That about 14 people were believed to be alive inside, and only three had gotten out.
“They should keep us informed,” Fernández said as her sister, the man’s mother, wept into Fernández’s black fleece sweater. “Because I think what kills us most is the desperation of not knowing anything.”
Referring to rumors that authorities intend to bring in heavy machinery that could risk bringing buildings down on anyone still alive inside, Fernández said: “That seems unjust to us because there are still people alive inside and that’s not OK.”
“I think they should wait until they take the last one out,” she said.
Seeking to dispel the rumors, National Civil Protection chief Luis Felipe Puente tweeted Thursday that heavy machinery “is NOT being used” in search-and-rescue efforts.
President Enrique Pena Nieto declared three days of mourning as soldiers, police, firefighters and everyday citizens dug through the rubble, at times with their hands, gaining an inch at a time.
“There are still people groaning. There are three more floors to remove rubble from. And you still hear people in there,” said Evodio Dario Marcelino, a volunteer who was working with dozens of others at a collapsed apartment building.
A man was pulled alive from a partly collapsed apartment building in northern Mexico City more than 24 hours after the Tuesday quake and taken away in a stretcher, apparently conscious
In all, 52 people had been rescued alive since the quake, the city’s Social Development Department said, adding in a tweet: “We won’t stop.” It was a race against time, Pena Nieto warned in a tweet of his own saying that “every minute counts to save lives.”
But the country’s attention focused on the collapsed Enrique Rébsamen school on the city’s south side, where 21 children and five adults have now been confirmed dead.
Hopes rose Wednesday when workers told local media they had detected signs that a girl was alive and she was speaking to them through a hole dug in the rubble. Thermal imaging suggested several more people might be in the air space around her.
A volunteer rescue worker, Hector Méndez, said cameras lowered into the rubble suggested there might be four people still inside, but he added that it wasn’t clear if anyone besides the girl was alive.
Dr. Alfredo Vega, who was working with the rescue team, said that a girl, whom he identified only as Frida Sofia, had been located alive under the pancaked floor slabs.
“She is alive, and she is telling us that there are five more children alive” in the same space, Vega said.
But authorities said the identity of the girl was unclear because no relatives had come forward with information.
The debris removed from the school changed as crews worked their way deeper, from huge chunks of brick and concrete to pieces of wood that looked like remnants of desks and paneling to a load that contained a half dozen sparkly hula-hoops.
Rescuers carried in lengths of wide steel pipe big enough for someone to crawl through, apparently trying to create a tunnel into the collapsed slabs of the three-story school building. But a heavy rain fell during the night, and the tottering pile of rubble had to be shored up with hundreds of wooden beams.
People have rallied to help their neighbors in a huge volunteer effort that includes people from all walks of life in Mexico City, where social classes seldom mix. Doctors, dentists and lawyers stood alongside construction workers and street sweepers, handing buckets of debris or chunks of concrete hand-to-hand down the line.
At a collapsed factory building closer to the city’s center, giant cranes lifted huge slabs of concrete from the towering pile of rubble, like peeling layers from an onion. Workers with hand tools would quickly move in to look for signs of survivors and begin attacking the next layer.
In addition to those killed in Mexico City, the federal civil defense agency said 69 died in Morelos state just south of the capital and 43 in Puebla state to the southeast, where the quake was centered. The rest of the deaths were in Mexico State, which borders Mexico City on three sides, Guerrero and Oaxaca states.